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André Schiffrin on 50 Years in Publishing World, from Corporate Consolidation to Founding Independent Nonprofit

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André Schiffrin has been a leading figure in the book publishing world for nearly 50 years. As head of Pantheon Books, André Schiffrin edited titles by Jean-Paul Sartre, Studs Terkel, Art Spiegelman, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. In 1990, he resigned and set up the nonprofit publishing house, The New Press. Schiffrin has also written several of his own books, including his new memoir, “A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, our next guest has been a leading figure in the book publishing world for nearly half a century. As head of Pantheon Books, André Schiffrin edited titles by Jean-Paul Sartre, Studs Terkel, Art Spiegelman, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault. In 1990, he resigned Pantheon and set up the nonprofit publishing house, The New Press. André Schiffrin has also written several of his own books, including The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changes the Way We Read. He’s just written a new memoir; it’s called A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York. André Schiffrin joins us now in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, usually, I know it’s tradition to just delve into the book that you’ve just published, but in your work and in that first book, where you talked about these multinational conglomerates, explain how publishing works. Who owns the publishing houses?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, publishing used to be what you could call “artisanal.” It was family firms that were many in number and had a wide choice of books and so on, and in the U.S. and, in fact, in Europe made about 3 or 4 percent a year in the way of profit, which was enough to keep going, but not enough to make a huge amount of money.

In recent years, through a long process which I described in The Business of Books, large media conglomerates have begun to buy more and more of publishing—people who own radio, television, cable, magazines, newspapers and so on. And they—the five largest conglomerates now control 80 percent of the books that are published in the U.S. for the general reader.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us some examples.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, Bertelsmann, of course, is the most notorious and which owns—

AMY GOODMAN: This is a German company.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: The German company, which owns—well, a lot of them are foreigners, which is interesting—which owns Random House—the Random House Group, Knopf and so on. Holtzbrinck, another German conglomerate, owns Farrar, Straus and Macmillan and other firms that are very distinguished. Murdoch, of course, owns HarperCollins and has made it part of his empire.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say “Murdoch, of course, owns HarperCollins,” I don’t think most people—in the same way when you go into a grocery store, and it looks like there are a lot of choices, and then you learn that all of these food companies, many of them are owned by the same company—


AMY GOODMAN: The same in publishing, because they have different names. The imprints are different. People assume that they’re competitors.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right. People have maintained that illusion, and, of course, it’s useful for them not to say, you know, you had another book published, brought to you by Rupert Murdoch, and so they keep the names of the old imprints. And the same thing happens in the bookstore again. When you go into a grocery store and you see a pile of Nabisco crackers, you don’t think it’s a staff pick. But when you go into a bookstore, you’ll see a pile of books next to the cash register, and you don’t know that that’s been paid for, that the chains get a great deal of money from the publishers to highlight their books at the end of each counter or in front of the cashier’s desk.

And of course the whole point of that is to stress the bestseller and to cut back on the choice that people have had. So that makes an enormous difference. It makes a difference in what’s available and what’s being published, and also in the politics. One of the things that struck me the most on Iraq is that during the first two years of the Bush administration, the crucial years, not a single large publisher, none of the conglomerates, published a book critical of what Bush was doing and what was going on in Iraq. And that was because they had other interests that went beyond the book market. They were interested, as Kucinich was saying, in what the FCC might do for them. They had all sorts of other irons in the fire. So, this is something that’s very dangerous.

The newspapers, as we know, can make up to 26 percent as an average a year profit. The book publishers were making 3 or 4. Well, the solution was not to lower the profits of the newspapers, it was to try and raise the profits of the publishing houses. And that has meant a complete transformation of what’s available from the larger houses. Whole areas that used to be basic to their trade have disappeared. And though there are still some good publishers doing the best they can under the profit pressures, it’s enormously changed the choice that Americans have.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened to you at Pantheon. You were there for 30 years. When you first came, who was it owned by? And what happened by the end?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right. Well, it was owned—it was owned by Random House when I got there, and it had been a small, independent firm before. And Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer had bought Knopf at the time. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Who was Bennett Cerf?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Bennett Cerf was the well-known television personality, but also a great publisher, who was head of Random House, as well as his partner, Donald Klopfer. And they ran a very good, old-fashioned American publishing house featuring mostly American writers, like O’Hara and Faulkner and so on. They then bought Alfred Knopf’s firm, which had been the most distinguished publisher of books from abroad—from Japan, from Europe and so on. And then, for dessert, they bought Pantheon.

And one of the things that we tend to forget is that American law is against the family firm, because everyone dies, and everyone has to pay inheritance taxes. The corporation is immortal. And so there is always a pressure on a publishing house to sell out, which is what happened to Bennett Cerf and Random House. They sold out to RCA, at the time when all the electronics giants, Raytheon and others, were trying to buy up publishing houses. That was the time of Wall Street’s believing in synergy, which turned out, as is the case with many things that Wall Street believes in, to be mythical.

And so, after that, they sold—RCA got out. They sold the firm to Condé Nast, owned by Si Newhouse, who owns Vogue and a lot of television and radio and so on. And when he came in, he said he didn’t want to change anything in what we were doing. It became very clear very soon that he was unhappy both with the quality of the material, which was too high, not too low, and also with the politics. And so, after a few years in—

AMY GOODMAN: How did it become clear?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, in 1990—and I describe this in the book—the man he’d put in charge of the firm, a former banker called Alberto Vitale, came to us and said, “We’d like you to cut out two-thirds of your list” — all the books that would have been the Foucaults and the others that were not sure bestsellers. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Michel Foucault is.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, he was one of the many important French philosophical figures that we published, and he still is a great influence and probably one—after Sartre, the most important of the French philosophers of the last century.

But also, he was very unhappy with what we were publishing politically, with the Chomskys and the others that we had published over the years. And Vitale said to us, “Why can’t you publish more books on the right rather than those on the left?” It was clear to us at that point that we were in a situation where there was no compromise, no solution. So all of my colleagues and I resigned at the same time, which is something that normally doesn’t happen in publishing. When there’s a new owner, everybody says, “Oh, well, let’s see. Maybe we can work it out. We don’t want to leave our corner offices,” and so on. But we did leave all together. And—

AMY GOODMAN: How many of you?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, there were six who left altogether, the editorial staff. And there was a big picket line outside of Random House. There was a lot of noise about it, protests from all over Europe and so on. And it was clear that people saw that as a sea change, a moment when the conglomerates would really try to alter, as they had been doing, what was published.

And so, because it was such a famous incident, I was able to start a not-for-profit house based on the idea of NPR, PBS, called The New Press, which is now celebrating its 15th anniversary. And we got—we had the manuscripts. We had our bestselling authors, like Studs Terkel and others, who stayed loyal to us, very courageously, and we were—

AMY GOODMAN: Meaning leaving Pantheon and joining you.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right, right. Of all the hundreds, if not thousands, of authors I had published at Pantheon over the 30 years, only two stayed behind.

AMY GOODMAN: Who stayed behind?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, I don’t want to embarrass them. And one of them because they had an agent who wanted them to stay behind. But most of the authors understood that this was a major crisis and a major change in American publishing. And even in another firms, you’ve seen people like Kurt Vonnegut leaving the Bertelsmann Group with his famous novels and going to a tiny publisher called Seven Stories. So, and increasingly, there are other alternatives. There are small houses, some of them formally a de facto not-for-profit, as we are, some de jure — sorry, de jure, some de facto, they’re not making a lot of money. But there is an attempt, both here and in Europe, to have an alternative to the conglomerates.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to André Schiffrin. He has written a new book about his own life, A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is André Schiffrin. The legendary publisher was at Pantheon for 30 years and then founded a new publishing house in 1990 called The New Press. It’s an independent. What does it mean to be a nonprofit publishing house?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, it means that you don’t have shareholders. You don’t have people who are going to say, “We want 10 percent,” at the end of the year, or 5 percent or whatever, or 20 percent, as the conglomerates want, so that we have the advantage of taking on books that can just break even. And that is unfortunately the case with many important books, perhaps most important books. In fact, when I started in publishing, the head of Doubleday, the largest American commercial firm, used to say they weren’t expecting to make money out of any of their hardcover books. They made money out of the paperbacks and the book clubs and so on. So, publishing is a place where you have to take risks, where you have to know that you’re not going to make an enormous amount of money in the short term. And if you have shareholders now who say, “We want more immediately,” then you’re in trouble.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Studs, Studs Terkel. How did you find him?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, Studs Terkel had written one children’s book before I met him, and I started reading some of his interviews, his marvelous interviews in the magazine that used to be published by his radio station, WFMT. And I realized that he was an exceptional interviewer, that he actually listened to people, which very few people do, and respected them and could get things out of them that no one else had done before. And I asked him if he would consider writing a book about Chicago, which he called Division Street, and which became a bestseller. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Did you expect it to be a bestseller?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: No, no, no. I didn’t think it would do as well as it did. But ever since then, we’ve never looked back. And what he’s done, in effect, is write an oral history of America since the Depression, or even before.

But there’s a footnote to that, in that Studs was blacklisted during the McCarthy period. He had been one of the most popular television personalities in the '40s and ’50s, what was called the Chicago School. He and David Garroway, who later became famous, as well, were extremely popular. But with the McCarthy period, Studs, who says he'd never met a petition he didn’t like, found that he couldn’t get any work at all. And so, part of what I was trying to do at Pantheon in the early ’60s was to see if we could undo some of the harm done intellectually and politically by the McCarthy period.

AMY GOODMAN: When Studs was on Democracy Now!, he described how he was doing radio with Mahalia Jackson.


AMY GOODMAN: And they said, no, he could no longer be the host with her. And she said, then there would be no show.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right, right. And he’s very proud of that, and it’s a great moment. But it also shows, as Studs says, how few people actually stood up against that system. And one of the things I try to do in this book is to look at the McCarthy period and look at the changes that took place and the cowardice, really, that was abroad in the country at that time, because one of the curious things, as you look at Kucinich talking today in favor of a national health insurance, Truman wanted to do that in ’48. The Fair Deal program had full employment. It had much more equality. It had all sorts of issues that were at that time looking very possible. And when I was in school, I talk about the fact that even our high school newspaper, published by Scholastic, which went to all the schools in the country, were discussing issues of that kind. They were even discussing: Should we nationalize railroads and mines, as the Europeans had done?

AMY GOODMAN: This was the Weekly Reader.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: It was the Weekly Reader, absolutely. And I later met and got to know Truman’s chief economic adviser, who told me that the debates within the administration was whether 2 percent unemployment was acceptable or whether you could go as high as 3. And recently I heard somebody who worked with the Community Service Society in New York saying that the unemployment rate for all black and Latino men 16 to 64—not school dropouts, all of them—is 39.6. And nobody talks about it. It’s not a major issue. It’s not—it’s not a subject of debate or something that either the Republicans or the Democrats feel is something that can be talked about. So the question in my book, in part, is: How have we come so far from where we were in the post-war period?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about that pivotal time, the McCarthy era, but go back, where you begin your book, and that’s going back to France, going back to your own family, your father and your mother. Talk about your background.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, I was born in France in 1935 in what was then a very pleasant time to be there. My father was a publisher, very famous publisher in France. And when the war came, and the Germans—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain his publishing house and what he was publishing.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, he had invented a new form called—a collection of classics from France and the rest of the world, called a “Pléiade,” which has since become one of the staples of French publishing. It’s books that practically all educated French people try to have in their homes, and has become a real institution. And he ended up working for the big publishing house called Gallimard, which bought up this collection. When it was so successful, he didn’t have the money to keep it growing. But the Germans had the bad idea of walking into Paris on my fifth birthday. And very shortly thereafter—

AMY GOODMAN: So your parents had your birthday the day before?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: They had the birthday the day before. They knew it was about to happen. And, of course, Paris was practically deserted at the time. And one of the first things the Germans did, who were very sophisticated in their occupation policy, was to “Aryanize,” as they called it, key cultural institutions.

AMY GOODMAN: Aryanize.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right. And so, Gallimard, in order to keep going, had to fire the two Jews who were working in his firm, my father among them.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did they explain that to your father and to the rest of the staff?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right. It was a demand of the German occupying authorities, and so it was a question of: Do you want to continue in publishing—and also accept a lot of fascists to direct the intellectual content of the firm—or do you want to go out of business? And Gallimard made that choice, which, in a way, was a collaborationist choice, as did a great many French people. And my father obviously was without a job and had to leave the country as quickly as possible, which was very difficult at that time. The American foreign policy wanted to exclude as many European Jews as they possibly could.

AMY GOODMAN: This is not a history that’s known very well in this country, of the level of anti-Semitism in the U.S. government at the time.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right, it was—which was enormous. And we published a book called The Abandonment of the Jews, by David Wyman, which is a history of how this went and how thorough it was, how complete it was. And thanks to an American, a very courageous American journalist called Varian Fry, we were able to get help and to get out. But he was able to—he was sent to save the famous intellectuals and union leaders and people of that kind. He managed to save 2,000 people out of the tens of thousands who wanted—who wanted to be saved.

AMY GOODMAN: Among others?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, the list ended up being a very famous list: Marc Chagall, the painter, and Hannah Arendt, who became famous as a political scientist, a lot of the German socialists and trade union leaders who had found refuge in France and then discovered that the French, in their armistice agreement with the Germans, had said they would hand them over to the Germans whenever they wanted.

AMY GOODMAN: Your family was very friendly with both André Gide and Hannah Arendt.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right. Well, Gide had worked with my father from the beginning of his publishing career in the 1920s. And we just published a book of their correspondence in France, which was well over 300 pages describing their relationship.

Arendt, we got to know in New York, when there was a small refugee community, of which she was a part. And now she’s become one of the most famous of the political scientists, and her centennial is being celebrated this year. What people forget is that she was unable to get a university job for well over 12 years after arriving. And that’s, again, part of the story that the refugee community did not become as integrated as we like to think.

AMY GOODMAN: Hannah Arendt, famous for, among other works, The Mundanity of Evil [sic]—

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —talking about how when you look at who these people were who were responsible for so much death.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right, right. No, she was famous for The Banality of Evil.

AMY GOODMAN: Banality of Evil.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: And as her—the slogan of her book, it was the Eichmann trial that she covered when she did that. But also a marvelous book called The Origins of Totalitarianism. And part of what I describe in the book is the intellectual feeling of this refugee community, where I went to study with Hannah Arendt when I was still in high school, and we went to a small socialist adult education school called the Rand School. And there were six people in the class: four garment workers, my mother and myself. And that was well before she got a professorship at Chicago and Princeton and elsewhere.

But one of the questions which I try to discuss in the book is: Why was there really so little willingness to accept ideas from abroad in America, at the time and since? Of course, now we’re so much more isolationist, intellectually speaking, that those look like the good old days. But there was—there was both a reluctance to accept ideas from abroad and also an incredible amount of anti-Semitism in the universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton had one Jewish professor each. Columbia, being in New York, I suppose was under greater pressure: They had two. But that’s part of the life in America that we didn’t realize. And even when I applied to Yale, it was clear that there was still an enormous amount of anti-Semitism in their selection of students.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the U.S. come out of the McCarthy period?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, it came out, I’m afraid, in much worse shape, because McCarthy had been an opportunistic politician who really had no ideology as such. He simply wanted to embarrass the Democrats. And he claimed that there were communists in the State Department, some, when there weren’t any. And he had—the names that he used to wave around had no meaning and no validity whatsoever. But he managed to terrify everyone. And even Eisenhower refused to defend his former colleague and partner, George Marshall, the head of the American forces in Europe, when McCarthy called him a traitor at the time. So you had an extraordinary period of fear.

And one of the things that I discovered later was that there was a full-time FBI office at Yale, for instance, and at Harvard and elsewhere, universities that were very conservative in their time and had no conceivable hint of subversion. So the idea was really to frighten people from having any ideas at all. And the Cold War had started, of course. But there should be no logical relationship between Stalin occupying Czechoslovakia and the end of national health insurance, but that is, in effect, what happened. Truman was put so much on the defensive by McCarthy that all the ideas he was putting forward in the Fair Deal disappeared.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say the media brought McCarthy down? I mean, Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney’s film, Edward Murrow, you know, taking him on?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, that took a long time. The media created McCarthy, I’m afraid, more than took him down. It took a long time. And by the time we reached the great Edward R. Murrow period, we know that because he was attacking the Army, McCarthy was in danger. And there were the McCarthy Army hearings, which marked the end of his career, when he’d just gone too far in attacking a sacred institution.

But for the most part, the press was scared. And I mention in the book the fact that 10 years after the McCarthy hearings, I was in the office of the New York Review of Books when Bob Silvers had commissioned the great American muckraking journalist I.F. Stone to do an article. And Silvers was very worried that people would consider the New York Review to be a communist front, that they would cancel their subscriptions and so on—10 years after McCarthy had been deposed. So the chill that spread over America lasted a very long time.

AMY GOODMAN: What gives you hope today?

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Well, I think, like everyone, there is some hope that when you have a total disaster, as we’ve had in the Bush administration, people will say, “Enough, we can’t go on like this.” And certainly the elections and even some of the Supreme Court decisions have been very helpful in that way. But the media themselves have only gradually begun to change in their coverage. And there’s a lot more that needs to be done in analyzing what the administration claims are and confronting them with the news that you can get elsewhere in the world. The difference between the way a French newspaper would cover or an English newspaper would cover the news and the way we do here is very substantial and surprising.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that difference, as we wrap up. You’re heading back to France this week.

ANDRÉ SCHIFFRIN: Right. Well, part of it, of course, is that the Europeans, having had their colonial wars, know how disastrous they were and opposed the Iraqi war from the beginning. But even in their coverage of Afghanistan, they’ll point out mistakes, constant mistakes that are made that we don’t know about here. And that, of course, makes a big difference. The leading English newspaper, The Guardian, is owned by a foundation, by a not-for-profit foundation called the Scott Trust, and so they don’t have any pressures of the kind that we see here.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much. A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York is André Schiffrin’s book. His independent publishing house is called The New Press. It’s celebrating its 15th anniversary. Thanks so much for joining us.


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